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So Now What?

Sunday December 29th  2019

Pastor Galen Zook

Isaiah 63:7-9; Matthew 2:13-23

First Sunday After Christmas

The “Magic” wears off quickly

Christmas is a wonderful time of the year. The lights, the candles, the music, the trees and decorations and gifts. Time together with family. These are truly sacred moments.

But the magic of Christmas wears off rather quickly doesn’t it? For you, maybe it was when you had to wake up to go to work the next day, or when you were left to do the clean up all by yourself after all of your family members were gone, or when everyone else had gone to bed.

Perhaps the magic wore off even on Christmas day when the kids started fighting (or your relatives of other ages started fighting!), or when the kids said they were bored, and you realized there was a whole week left before they had to go back to school!

Some of us are happy to move on from Christmas. We’re tired of seeing Christmas decorations, tired of hearing Christmas songs. The stores started decorating for Christmas before Halloween, and now that all the Christmas gifts have been unwrapped and the holiday meals are finished, maybe you just want it to all be over. 

Historically Christmas was a twelve-day celebration, beginning on December 25th. The period leading up to Christmas is called Advent, where we’re awaiting the celebration of Christmas, and then the period between December 25th and January 6th is Christmas itself, but our society gets it all mixed up. We start celebrating Christmas way too early, skip over advent, and then by the time December 25th is here, we are ready to start packing everything up!

So Now What?

But whether you’re celebrating all twelve days of Christmas, or whether you’ve already put your Christmas decorations away, I’d like to invite us to dwell in the meaning of Christmas for just a little bit longer, and to ask ourselves the question, “So What Now?” 

I don’t just mean, “what do we do with our children for the next 4 days until they go back to school?” I mean, how should we live now that Christ has been born? And how do we live out the promises of Christmas in a world where all is not right, where all is not wonderful and magical?

For Mary and Joseph, the magic and wonder of that first Christmas was met soon afterwards by the harsh reality of life, when an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him that King Herod was out to kill baby Jesus, and that they needed to flee for their lives all the way to the land of Egypt. Talk about the reality of life hitting you hard!

All of the prophecies leading up to the birth of Christ seemed to indicate that the world would be completely different once the Messiah was born. We read many of these prophecies during the Advent — prophecies of the wolf and lamb living together in harmony (Is. 11:6), prophecies of people beating their swords into plowshares and studying war no more (Is. 2:4. Prophecies about how God would be a shepherd to the people and care for them (Micah 5:4).

But Jesus was born, and tyrannical governors like Herod still ruled in this world. Jesus was born, and yet Mary and Joseph were forced to flee for their lives. Jesus has been born, and yet poverty, and homelessness, and addiction, and domestic violence, and wars still take place. Jesus has been born, and yet there is still sickness, and death and disease.

How do we live in a world in which these things occur? How do we live in a world in which all is not the way it should be, even as we wait and long for the day when Christ returns to make everything right?

The Example of Mary and Joseph

I’m struck by the fact that Mary and Joseph followed the directions given by the angel. They fled to Egypt. A 430-mile journey, with an infant or toddler does not sound like fun for anyone, let alone in a time when there were no cars, planes, trains, or buses!

But they followed the directions of the angel, and they fled. They didn’t argue or negotiate, they didn’t live in blind optimism that everything would turn out OK if they stayed. They listened to the Lord, and they took the necessary steps to ensure the safety of their family. 

We have no idea what life was like for Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in Egypt, or even how long they needed to stay there. In the book of Jeremiah, we see that a remnant of Jewish people had fled to Egypt (600 years before the birth of Christ) and had even taken the prophet Jeremiah along with them against his will (Jer. 43:6-7). By the time of Jesus’s birth, there was a large number of Jewish people living in Egypt — some estimate that over 300,000 Jews lived in the city of Alexandria alone! (⅓ of the total population of the city of 1 million people).

And so Mary and Joseph followed the directions given by the messenger of the Lord, traveled hundreds of miles, crossed international borders, and lived in Egypt until they received word that it was safe to return home. Even when they returned home, they decided to settle in Galilee, in the northern part of Palestine, since King Herod’s relative was on the throne in Judea.

Joseph and Mary didn’t give up on the promises of God. They continued to trust and believe that their son would be the Savior of the world, as the angel had promised (Matt. 1:21). But they were also attentive to the things going on around them, and they took appropriate precautions. They balanced realism and optimism, hope and rational thinking. They lived faith-filled lives, and faithfully carried out the task that God had given them to do, and in so doing they played an active role in God’s redemption plan for the world! 

Displaced People

As I’ve been reflecting on the story of Mary and Joseph fleeing to Egypt, I’ve been thinking about how many people in our world today are currently displaced, how many people are currently in a situation where they have been forced to flee for their lives.

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency

  • We are now witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record.
  • An unprecedented 70.8 million people around the world have been forced from home. Among them are nearly 25.9 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18.
  • There are also millions of stateless people who have been denied a nationality and access to basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement.
  • 1 person is forcibly displaced every two seconds as a result of conflict or persecution.

This of course is not just a recent phenomenon. My own ancestors fled to the U.S. to escape religious persecution in Europe in the 1700’s, and many of you probably have ancestors who came to the U.S. fleeing the threat of violence back home, or perhaps simply seeking a better life for their children and grandchildren.

Here in our own city, it is estimated that there are 2,500 men, women, and children who are homeless on any given night. 

Not all of them are homeless because they were fleeing dangerous situations, but undoubtedly some are. This past Monday, I received a call here on the church phone from a woman who had been in Baltimore for only two days. She admitted to me that she is a recovering addict, but she said that she had left her home in Pennsylvania because she had been living in an unsafe situation. Someone had promised her a place to stay here in Baltimore, but when she arrived there was absolutely no food in the house. There were numerous people living in the house, including children, but no food to be found. It being a few days before Christmas, most of the places she had called were closed, and some of the phone numbers she tried calling were no longer in service. She said we were the only place who returned her call. We were able to give her and her boyfriend two bags of groceries and several loaves of bread, for which she was immensely grateful. 

All of this is a stark reminder to me that we live in a world where not all is not right in the world. Not all of God’s promises have yet been fulfilled. There is still violence and conflict, and as long as there is conflict and violence in our world, there will be people who, like Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus, are forced to flee for their lives.

Peace, Hope, Joy and Love

And so how do we live in a world where all is not right, where so many people are forcibly displaced from their homes, where so many children go to bed hungry every night, and where so many people live in constant fear for their lives?

Like Mary and Joseph, we cling to and proclaim the promise that in Christ God is with us, that in Christ God’s mercy, and grace, and salvation are free and available to all. And we look forward to the day when Christ will return to make everything right. 

We look to the future with hope, but we also seek to faithfully carry out the tasks that God has given to us in the present. We welcome the strangers, we feed those who are hungry. If Jesus and his family were refugees in Egypt, then surely we can work to provide safety and security to those around us who are vulnerable and dislocated from their homes. We work for the good of our community, and we seek to bring about peace, recognizing that God still uses faithful, faith-filled people, to help carry out God’s plan of redemption in the world. 

And ultimately, we point people to the one who loves us and who gave his life for us. We point them to Jesus — Emmanuel — God with us. The one who came to save us from our sins, the only one who can bring lasting peace, hope, joy, and love.

And so this morning, let us open our hearts toward all who are displaced, all those who come to us in need, all those who are discouraged, or depressed, or downtrodden. Let us ask God to help us see the face of Christ in all who are oppressed, in all who are in need of God’s love, mercy, and grace. Let us proclaim the promises of Christmas, and let us with our words and deeds point people to the One who loves them and give his life for them.

As people who have received God’s peace, hope, joy, and love, let’s extend God’s love, grace, and compassion to a world that is still longing to be set free!

Silent Night, Holy Night

Tuesday December 24th, 2019

Christmas Eve

Pastor Galen Zook

A Night Like Any Other Night

For most of the residents of the sleepy little town of Bethlehem, it was a night not much different from any other night.

True, many of them had out-of-town guests staying with them, so their already cramped and tiny houses were even more crowded than normal. Although it must have been fun to see friends and family that they had not seen in such a long time, the reality is that they were not gathered together for a holiday celebration, but rather because the Emperor had demanded that everyone return to their hometown so that a census could be taken. In other words, they were being taxed. Not exactly a cause for celebration!

And so as they went to bed that night, many sleeping crowded next to each other on the floor on that dark and silent night, their overcrowded homes were a stark reminder that they were not free people. They were a people who lived under the constant threat of violence, constantly under the yoke of oppression. They were a people constantly longing to be set free. 

And the worst part about it was their knowledge that it was because of their own sin and guilt that they were in the shape they were in! Their own prophets had predicted that if they turned away from God they would be overtaken by a foreign government, and that was indeed what happened. But after century after century of one oppressive ruler after another, they longed for God to forgive, and to come and make everything right again. They longed for God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness so they could finally be free, and so they could finally live in peace. 

The prophets had predicted that one would come who would set them free, one who would be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. One who would be a shepherd to his people, and rule over them in peace. But when would he come, or would he ever come?

And so the residents of Bethlehem and their out-of-town guests went to sleep that night, longing, hoping, and waiting, just as they did every other night.

A Holy Night 

But for Mary and Joseph, it was not a night like any other. For them it was indeed a holy — a sacred — night.

They too had been forced to travel for over a week from their hometown of Nazareth to Bethlehem because of the census, and the timing could not have been worse. Mary was about to give birth to their first child, and when they arrived in Bethlehem there wasn’t even room for them to stay in an inn or guest room. And so they gave birth to their firstborn child in a stable, and laid their baby on a bed of fresh hay in a manger — a fancy word for a feeding trough.

But for Mary and Joseph, they knew this was a sacred night. And not just because they had just given birth to their firstborn child — a cause for celebration indeed! But also because an angel had visited Mary and told her that her child was the one the people had been waiting for — the one whom the prophets had predicted would come. The one who would free the people — and not just their people, but All people — from the yoke of tyranny and oppression.

And so on that first Christmas night, as Mary and Joseph looked down at the child in their arms, surrounded by animals, and visited by the unlikeliest of guests — the shepherds from the hillsides of Bethlehem — they wondered at the miracle that had taken place inside Mary’s womb. And as they stared down at the face of their little child, they looked at him with love, joy, peace, hope — and amazement.

The Light of Christ

In truth, this was not the way anyone expected it would take place. Most people expected a conquering military hero who would swoop in and overthrow the Roman Empire and establish himself as king — not a baby born in a stable. They expected a conquering king who would smite their enemies — not a baby laid in a manger.

And yet, the little baby born that night was like a single candle being lit.

When even a candle is lit in a room, that room is no longer completely dark. In fact, it’s been said that on a completely dark and still night, if there were no obstructions in the way, the flame from a single solitary candle could be seen for almost 2 miles in every direction!

And so, that Silent and Holy night, as the Christ child was born, it was as though a single candle had been lit in the darkness. And as Jesus grew older and walked this earth, he spread his message of peace, love, forgiveness and grace, and others began to follow him in that way. Their candles too began to burn bright, and they carried the message of hope, love, peace, and joy with them wherever they went. And that light has been spread on down through the ages, until it has reached even here to us today.

And so this evening we are too are invited to carry forth that light — to spread Christ’s message of peace, hope, and joy to all those in our own world who are longing to be set free. We are invited to be the light of Christ to those who are burdened down by guilt or shame, those who are lonely, marginalized, those who are hungry, poor, homeless, those who are suffering from disease, and all those who are oppressed. But before we can be a light to others, we need to accept the light of Christ in our own lives. We need to allow Christ to be born in us.

Let us invite the light of Christ into our lives, and let us go forth to bear Christ’s light in the world!

Joy

Sunday December 15th  2019

Pastor Galen Zook

Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:2-11

Third Sunday of Advent

Joy

It’s not hard to see why the word “Joy” is associated with Christmas. Christmas is a joyous season for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that we get to open presents! Many of us have fond memories of running downstairs on Christmas morning to see the delightfully wrapped packages awaiting us under the tree. And no doubt many of us here this morning are looking forward to Christmas this year with hope and expectation, perhaps to see what presents you will receive, or perhaps because there’s a gift that you are very excited to give to someone else.

For the youngsters here in the room this morning, one of the ways that you can tell you’re getting older (in addition to the fact that you start saying things like “youngster”), is that you find that you are more excited about seeing your younger relatives open their gifts than you are about opening up your own presents.

Whether your family is one of those families where everyone tears into their presents as soon as they wake up on Christmas morning, or whether your family is like my family, where we light some candles and turn on Christmas music and take turns opening up our presents one by one so that we can extend the gift-opening process as long as possible, giving and receiving gifts is indeed a joyous experience.

Isaiah’s Prophecy

But the gifts that the prophet Isaiah predicted the Messiah would bring were not presents that could be very easily wrapped up and placed under a tree.

According to Isaiah, at the coming of the Messiah, 

The eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped;  then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert;  the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water…(Is. 35:5-7a)

Imagine finding that under your tree on Christmas morning! But what a beautiful and joy-filled picture. The person who previously could not even walk, not begins leaping like a deer! The one who could not even speak, now sings for joy! And where there had previously been a drought, now there is a stream. And not just a stream, but a pool, and a spring of water gushing forth from the ground.  

This is a picture of a joy that cannot be contained. Joy that is from somewhere deep down inside. Joy that is overflowing, bubbling over. 

In Isaiah’s prophecy, all of this would take place when God came to save, when the glory of the Lord was revealed, and when all would see and recognize the wonder and majesty of God (see Is. 35:2). And the end result would be that “the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away (Is. 35:10b).

In Isaiah’s mind, in order for this to happen, the coming of the Lord’s salvation would also come with God’s “vengeance, and with terrible recompense” (Is. 35:4) — in other words, God’s judgment and wrath — no doubt on the enemies of Israel. For a people who had been downtrodden and oppressed for so long by so many different people groups, this was a much longed-for occurrence, and would be received as a welcome gift.

Was Jesus Really the One?

And yet the actual coming of the Messiah, the birth of the baby Jesus which we celebrate this time of the year, included none of the fire and brimstone, none of the judgment coming down out of the sky, none of the plagues or hailstorms that we might have expected to be associated with God’s rescue and redemption.

Instead, Jesus was born peacefully, quietly, rather unobtrusively. Born in a stable and laid in a manger, the son of a carpenter and a poor young mother, in a humble village, a few miles outside the capital city of Jerusalem. Not much is known about Jesus as a young child, but when he is fully grown and begins his public ministry of teaching and healing, even his cousin John the Baptist begins to wonder if Jesus is really the Promised One after all.  

John the Baptist, the prophet who had prepared the way for Jesus’s ministry by preaching in the desert and calling the people to repent — to turn around — and to get ready for the soon-coming kingdom, had landed himself in prison. He’d gone too far, gotten too personal, called out the sin and hypocrisy of the religious and political elite, and now he was awaiting sentencing. But perhaps even more so, he was awaiting the Messiah to come and free him, and not just him but all of the Jewish people. He was waiting for Jesus to overturn the powers that be, the corrupt and wicked forces that kept the people in bondage. John and all of the people were waiting to be rescued and set free.

And so he wonders if Jesus is really the One after all? Is he really the One that the prophets foretold? And if so, where’s the vengeance? Why hasn’t he come with God’s judgment and wrath to overthrow the Roman government and free John and all the people from their yoke of oppression? Why hasn’t Jesus acted more decisively? Where’s the army? Why isn’t he playing the part of the conquering military hero that so many expected? If Jesus was the Messiah, what was he waiting for?

Below the Surface

Jesus sends word back to John, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Matt. 11:4-5).

Through Jesus, the prophetic vision of Isaiah was being fulfilled. Through Christ, Isaiah’s vision was coming to pass. Those who could not walk were being healed. Those who couldn’t speak could now sing. The blind were being given their sight, and lepers were being cleansed, even the dead were being raised! And, Jesus says, the “poor have good news brought to them.”

But what John couldn’t see was that something deep and profound was occurring beneath the surface — something that would eventually spring forth into new life and rivers of living water. Jesus was freeing people not only from their physical blindness, but even more-so from their spiritual blindness. Jesus was raising people not just to physical life, but to eternal life. Jesus was freeing people, not from their bondage to the Roman government, but from their bondage to Sin, and the strongholds of violence and greed and deceit that pervade every society in every time and in every place.

You see, Jesus had not come just to free the Israelites from the yoke of oppression they were currently living under — if that were the case then it would have made sense for him to come with an army.

Instead, Jesus was ushering in the Kingdom of God — a Kingdom that would eventually be made up of people from every nation, language, and ethnicity. This Kingdom vision was much larger and all-encompassing that one group of people being saved or rescued from their enemies. Instead, the Good News of the Kingdom is available to all people — in all times and places — who turn to him for the forgiveness of their sins — oppressed and oppressor alike. This is indeed Good news. This should indeed result in everlasting joy. 

And yet, the joy that we have in Jesus is not yet complete. We are still waiting for the ultimate fulfillment of these promises, still waiting for the time when Jesus will return, when we will go to be with Jesus forever, where “everlasting joy shall be upon [our] heads…and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Is. 35:10).

In the meantime, we still have sorrows, and we still have struggles. We still experience pain, and loss and suffering. We still experience hardship. And like John the Baptist, often we wonder why Jesus doesn’t just come and take it all away? And this leads many to wonder if Jesus is indeed the One, or should we wait for another?

Jesus — Bringer of True and Everlasting Joy

And yet, if you’ve ever experienced Jesus’s work in your life, if you’ve ever experienced his grace and salvation wash over you like a flood, if you’ve ever been healed or forgiven, if you’ve ever had your spiritual sight restored, then you know that Jesus is the one this world is waiting for. You know that true joy, and hope, and peace can be found in none other than him. 

Although we await the ultimate fulfillment, although we await the time when sickness and death and poverty will finally be brought to an end, even here and now we can experience the true and lasting joy that only Jesus can bring. 

The joy that Jesus brings is a joy that is not based on our outward circumstances. It is not based on how much money we have, or how many presents are waiting for us under the tree on Christmas morning. It is a deep and inner joy. A joy that lasts even in the midst of sorrow and mourning. A joy and a peace “which surpasses all understanding” (Phil. 4:7).

And so this Advent and Christmas season, let us pause to reflect on the Gift that we have already been given. Sometime between now and Christmas morning, I encourage you to take a few minutes to think about where you’ve come from, how far Jesus has brought you. How has Jesus rescued you, or what has he kept you from? How has he given you new eyes to see? How is your life different because of the work that God has done in your life?

If you’ve never written out your testimony (story), maybe you could take some time to do that this Advent season? Or if you’ve never told your family members, children or grandchildren, maybe take some time before or after the presents are unwrapped to remind them of why the birth of Jesus is something to be celebrated. 

Many families have a tradition of reading the Christmas story together on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning. But perhaps this Christmas you could also share a sentence or two about what the birth of Christ means to you? In the midst of the sorrows and sufferings of this life, in the midst of all the reasons to doubt, we need the encouragement of one another to have faith and believe. (If even John the Baptist had doubts, then we are in good company if we have them too!)

And so this morning, let us come before the Lord with all of our doubts, with all of our sorrows and sighing. Let’s remember what Jesus has done for us, and let’s kneel before him and worship him, because he is worthy to be praised.

Let us focus our attention first and foremost on Jesus. Let our primary focus not be on presents, or on the lights or trees, or on the buying or receiving gifts. Those things are great reminders of the true Gift that we have received in Christ! But let’s ultimately find our true joy and delight in the One who gave himself for us. The One who saved us and redeemed us. The One who is constantly present with us — no matter what we might be going through. Let us look to Jesus for our peace, our hope, and our joy. Jesus truly is the best gift we could ever receive. Let us worship him, and give him the adoration and the praise that he is due!

O come let us adore Him, O come let us adore him, O come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord!

Hope

Sunday December 8th  2019

Pastor Galen Zook

Isaiah 11:10; Matthew 3:1-12

Second Sunday of Advent

Hope

Today we continue our journey of Advent as we look forward to the celebration of the birth of Jesus and the future return of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Today we focus on the word “Hope.”

Merriam Webster’s dictionary informs us that the word “hope” means “to cherish a desire with anticipation: to want something to happen or be true.” Hope conjures up images in our minds of longing, wanting, and waiting. 

At various points in our lives, all of us have probably hoped for something that did not come to fruition.

Perhaps as a child there was a specific toy or gift you hoped you would get for Christmas, but alas it did not come. Perhaps you hoped to one day marry the person of your dreams, or to win the lottery or become inherently wealthy, to live in a mansion, or to travel the world, but perhaps those hopes have not been fulfilled.

Hope and Wait on the Lord

In the Bible, the word “hope” has the connotation of waiting and looking forward to something that we know will happen, we just may not know when it’s going to happen.

Psalm 33:18-21 tells us that “The eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him, on those whose hope is in his unfailing love, to deliver them from death and keep them alive in famine. We wait in hope for the Lord; he is our help and our shield. In him our hearts rejoice, for we trust in his holy name.”

In Isaiah 40:31 we read the words: “those who hope in the Lord [or wait on the Lord] will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”

To hope in something that you know is going to happen is to wait. And so we can hope, or wait on the Lord.

In the Bible, the strength of our hope is not in how much we wish for something to be true, or how much we want it to happen. Instead, the strength of our hope is in what we are placing our hope in, or more correctly in whom we are placing our hope.

The Soon Coming King

When we read the beautiful poetic imagery in the book of Isaiah of the wolf living with the lamb, the leopard lying down with the baby goat, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child leading all of them, we know that although this imagery is symbolic, this is not just some pie-in-the-sky fantasy that will never come to pass, but it is instead a picture of what will take place. It is a prophecy of the world that is to come — the world of peace, love, and joy that will ultimately become a reality when Christ returns to judge the world with fairness and equity (Isaiah 11:3-4), when all wrongs are made right, and when the whole world acknowledges Jesus as King (see Romans 14:11, Isaiah 45:23b). 

The prophet Isaiah, writing 700 years before the birth of Christ, predicted that “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots” (Isaiah 11:1).

Like a tree that had been prematurely cut down, the dynasty of the son of Jesse — King David — would come to an untimely end around 586 BC when the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem, captured the king, and carried away the best and brightest of the Jewish people into captivity in Babylon. And all of this despite the fact that the Lord had told King David that his “house and …kingdom and throne would be established forever (2 Samuel 7:16).

And yet, just as a shoot can grow out of the stump that has been chopped down, regrowing once again to become a flourishing and fruitful tree, Isaiah foretells that this “shoot” that grows out of Jesse and King David’s lineage will be filled with the spirit of God, and with all wisdom and with all understanding. This King that is to come will have the spirit of counsel and might, and will be filled with the knowledge and the fear of the Lord. 

This King who is to come will delight in the Lord, and will judge not by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear, but will instead judge the earth with righteousness, justice, and equality. He will speak God’s truth, he will wear righteousness and faithfulness as a belt around his waist.

When this King comes, even the wild animals will get along! Isaiah foretells that “they will not hurt or destroy on all [God’s] holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9). And Isaiah goes on to say that “on that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious” (Isaiah 11:10).

What a beautiful and hopeful picture this is.

It Shall Come to Pass

And if we wonder whether or not this is actually going to happen, whether the events that this prophecy predicts will ever come to pass, Isaiah assures us that “a shoot shall come…A branch shall grow…the spirit of the Lord shall rest on him…His delight shall be in the Lord…he shall judge…righteousness shall be the belt around his waist.

“Shall” — “it should” and “it will.” This is not just what is supposed to happen, not just what would be nice if it happened, not just something that would be a beautiful fantasy if it were to take place. It is what shall come to pass! It shall happen! We can rest assured that it can, it should, and indeed it will take place.

Get Ready!

And so we must get ready! 

John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness desert shortly before Jesus began his earthly ministry, called people to repent — to prepare themselves for the Kingdom of Heaven by turning around and facing the right way.

John told even the most seemingly religious of leaders that they were not yet ready for the Kingdom, that they needed to be baptized and to confess their sins, and that they needed to “bear fruit worthy of repentance” (Matthew 3:8).

John said that while he baptized with water, the Messiah, who is even more powerful than he — was coming and he would baptize them with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

In other words, all of the good things that they had been doing were not good enough. They needed to be cleansed from the inside out. They needed to be made over anew. They needed to be reborn. They needed a whole new perspective, a mindset shift, a worldview change. Only then could they be ready, only then could they recognize the King when he arrived.

John called the people of his day– and his words ring throughout the ages to all of us — to turn around. To look to the Lord for our hope and our strength. To wait on the Lord. To prepare room in our hearts for God to come in and do a mighty work. To make us completely over anew. We need a complete change of heart, we need our minds turned right-side up and our hearts turned inside out, so that we can indeed recognize the Kingdom of Heaven when it is here in its fullness. We do not want to miss it, we don’t want to let it pass us by. We want to be ready when Christ returns

So let’s get ready! Let us put our hope and our trust in the Lord. Let’s allow him to cleanse us from the inside-out. Let us turn away from anything that might distract us from serving the Lord. Let’s bear fruit that is worthy of repentance. And let us make room in our hearts and in our lives for the King who is to come. 

O come to my heart, Lord Jesus,

There is room in my heart for Thee!

Peace

Sunday December 1st  2019

Pastor Galen Zook

Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:11-14; Matt. 25:42

First Sunday of Advent

Advent

Today marks the first Sunday of Advent, that season of waiting and preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus and the coming return of Jesus Christ our King. 

For many of us, waiting is difficult. We’re impatient, we wish we could just get wherever we’re going right now. It’s hard for us to live in the moment, to enjoy the present. We want to arrive at our destination yesterday. We’re like little kids sitting in the back of the car, constantly asking the question, “Are we there yet?”

As a society we do not do very well at waiting. Not only can you get Next Day Shipping, but now you can even get 2-hour delivery from Amazon.com. Stores started decorating for Christmas well before Thanksgiving, and I guarantee that even before Christmas arrives they’ll start selling Valentine’s Day candy. And don’t try to buy a winter coat at the stores in the wintertime, because that’s when they’re starting to sell swimsuits and their other summer selections.

And yet we find ourselves here in Advent, in this season of waiting. Waiting not just for Christmas, but for the ultimate fulfillment of what Christmas is supposed to bring: peace, hope, joy, and love. This is what the prophets foretold would happen when the Messiah came. This is what our world is longing for, waiting for. And yet we know that Christmas will come and go, and there will probably still be violence in our city, there will probably still be wars and conflict in our world, and there will probably still be bickering and fighting in our own households. 

We know that one holiday season cannot solve all of the world’s problems. But Christmas reminds us of the way the world is supposed to be, of what we have to look forward to when Christ ultimately returns to make everything right, when the whole world acknowledges Jesus to be the King. The Christmas season points forward to that day when violence is finally brought to an end, when sin and death are ultimately defeated, and when Jesus returns to judge and rule the world in righteousness, peace and love.

Isaiah’s Prophecy of the Nations 

The Prophet Isaiah painted a vivid picture of this for us. According to Isaiah,

In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and…all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob… (Isaiah 2:2-3a)

Can you imagine that? People of every nation and ethnicity rushing to get into God’s house. But notice here in Isaiah’s prophecy why they’re coming in droves to God’s house:

…that [God] may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples (Isaiah 2:3b-4a).

In Isaiah’s imaginative foretelling, people are streaming to the “mountain of the Lord’s house” so that they can learn God’s ways and walk in God’s paths, and so that God can “arbitrate” between the nations. In this picture, God is the judge that Kings go to in order to settle their disputes. Not just individual people, but nations, governments, and rulers are pouring into God’s house to learn God’s ways so that they can walk in God’s paths. 

Imagine if the leaders of every nation in the world were to acknowledge God as the true King — as the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, and the ruler of all the earth! It would bring an end to all wars, conflict and violence in our world. In this beautiful image that Isaiah paints, Isaiah tells us that “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isaiah 2:4).

Picture this scene with me. Gang members look at each other and then look down at their knives and guns and saying, “well, we don’t need these anymore!” and so they melt them down and turn them into trowels and gardening tools! Police officers are forced to find other means of employment because people aren’t committing crimes anymore! Government leaders mutually agree to get rid of weapons of mass destruction because they know that they will never be needed again, and the engineers and scientists of our world can turn their attention elsewhere because they no longer need to invent ways to help their countries defend against attacks from other countries.

Between the Now, and Not Yet

How, when, and where will this happen? As Christians, we believe we are living in the Now, and yet Not Yet. Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah, has already come, and a smattering of people from every nation and people group have acknowledged Jesus as King. Many of us here this morning have asked Jesus to be the Lord of our lives. We have pledged our lives to God’s Kingdom. And so in some ways it’s already here!

And yet not everyone in the world acknowledges Jesus as King. Nations still go to war against other nations, there is still quarreling and bickering, there are still fights and disputes and violence. Many people have shut God out of their lives completely, and still others seem ambivalent or apathetic to God. Church attendance is in decline across the nation. It does not seem that people are streaming into God’s house to learn God’s ways.

And so we live in the Now, but also the Not Yet. We look to Jesus as the source and the guide for our lives, but we also look forward and long for the day when Christ will return to make everything right, when Christ will come back to rule and to reign for all eternity and when the whole world will acknowledge God as King. We long for the day when not just all of the peoples of the earth, but also all of the rulers and authorities and governments bow to the lordship of Jesus Christ.

Now I know that at this point many people roll their eyes and say, “when is that ever going to happen? Jesus was born over 2,000 years ago, and every generation since then thought that Jesus would return in their lifetime. How do we know that Jesus is going to come back soon?”

The truth is, we don’t know! We have no idea when Jesus will return — and don’t trust anyone who says they’ve figured out the exact date and time when Jesus will return! But, as the Apostle Paul said in his letter to the Romans, “salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers” (Rom. 13:11b)! We may not know when Jesus will return, but we do know that Jesus’s coming is nearer to us now than ever, and the day is drawing closer 

As Jesus told his disciples in Matthew 24, “Keep awake….for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (Matt. 24:42). It could be within our lifetime, it could be a thousand years from now. And so we live every day as if it could be our last, as if Jesus might return today. We live every day longing and hoping, and actively working to proclaim the message of the Gospel through word and deed. We acknowledge Jesus as the King of our lives, and we work to bring about Christ’s Kingdom of peace, hope, joy, and love here and now.

Where Do We Go to Find Peace?

Now there’s a reason, I think, why people are not streaming into our church (or any church for that matter) asking us to teach them about God, or to teach them how to be at peace with themselves or one another. And that is that as church-going people, we’re often known more for our quarreling and contention than for anything having to do with peace. 

Think of all the divisions that we see in the Church. Think of the arguments, the politics and bickering, the posturing for positions of leadership, the complaints and the gossip. (I’m not speaking about our church, of course! I’m talking about all of those other churches our there☺). A lot of people refuse to go to church because that has been their experience of church. 

Ask the average person on the street where they would go if they want to find peace, and very few of them will say “church.” If they wanted to be at peace with themselves they would probably go to a therapist. If they have a conflict with their neighbor they’re more likely to go to a secular mediator than to a religious leader. And if they wanted to find peace with God they are more likely to seek out a quasi-religious guru on a far-away mountain-top retreat than to set foot into the doors of a church. 

“Put On the Lord Jesus Christ”

And so Paul tells the Christians in Rome to “live honorably…not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 13:13). Now here at Hampden United Methodist Church, I would say I am not aware of a whole lot of reveling and drunkenness, debauchery or licentiousness going on in our midst. We do pretty well with that (as far as I know)! But we do have our quarrels and jealousies from time to time. 

And so in the spirit of living in the Now but Not Yet, in the spirit of becoming people who proclaim God’s peace to the nations, I wonder what it would be like for us to follow Paul’s advice, to put aside quarreling and jealousy and to instead put on the Lord Jesus Christ? What if, instead of passing along the juiciest gossip that we hear, what if we lifted that person up in prayer instead? Rather than being easily offended, what if we assumed the best about each other’s intentions? And what if, rather than complaining and bickering, we chose to yield our personal preferences, likes and dislikes for the sake of unity within our congregation?

If we could truly become people who live at peace with one another, then perhaps people would stream into our doors, to ask us to instruct them in the way of God’s peace! 

People of Peace

Now some of you might say “well it would be a lot easier to get along with everyone if they just thought/believed/acted like me!” And that is probably true. But we don’t come to church because we all have the same perspectives, preferences, likes or dislikes. We come to church because we all know that apart from Christ we are lost, that we ourselves are in need of God’s grace, and mercy, and love. We are in constant need of God’s forgiveness. That’s why we come together, that’s why we’re here. 

I know that there’s no way we’re ever going to become the perfect church, this side of eternity. We’re going to mess up and slip up, we’re going to make mistakes, and we’ll need to ask for forgiveness from God and from one another. That’s why in a few minutes, before we partake in Communion, we’ll pray a prayer of confession, and we’ll offer the sign of peace and reconciliation to one another. 

This morning let those words be not just something that we do and say out of habit. But let them be a genuine symbol of our love for and devotion to God and to the Body of Christ. Let us seek to be a people who pray for and practice peace — not just in far-off distant lands, but here at home. In our congregation, in our own households. If we’ve wronged let’s ask forgiveness. If someone else has wronged us, let’s extend mercy and compassion. Let’s keep a short record of accounts. Let’s assume the best of one another. And let’s let God’s grace flow freely among us.

Perhaps then the world will believe us when we say that we know the Prince of Peace! Perhaps then the world will take us seriously when we invite them here to find peace with God. Perhaps then we can become people who teach the nations how to beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Perhaps then the world will acknowledge Jesus as King.